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Features Published 13 April 2017

How verbatim work is bringing protests into theatres

"Shouldn’t more plays be activist?" Verity Healey explores how shows including E15, My Country and Denmarked intersect with real-life protest movements.
Verity Healey
E15 at Battersea Arts Centre

E15 at Battersea Arts Centre

In almost two decades dominated by outbreaks of revolutions and global occupations, perhaps it should be no surprise that theatre-makers are embracing protest in their work, and increasingly using verbatim as a form to explore it.  But verbatim theatre isn’t without issues, especially when it comes to questions of authenticity and honesty. As the creators of Lines, a recent drama about the frustrations of people whose stories were made into a documentary theatre show, have written, “it is impossible to remain completely faithful to the play’s original subjects” when making a verbatim performance. 

E15 challenges that idea – and in fact, its subjects appear on stage, joining in a party before the show starts and handing out flyers afterwards. Produced by Lung, it’s a protest theatre verbatim piece that highlights the struggles of the Focus E15 Mums, an activist group who fought Newham Council’s aggressive social cleansing policy. Matt Woodhead, director of E15, admits that “verbatim has limitations and is not always the right form…but the things the Mums are saying in their interviews are very much more articulate and nuanced than anything we could write.” Jasmin Stone, who led the Focus 15 Mums’ campaign, also defends Lung’s choice of using verbatim. Focus 15 were approached by several theatre groups and filmmakers wishing to tell their story, but, says Stone, “We had strict rules about who got involved. Other theatre companies and film makers were trying to impose an agenda and we felt censored. We wanted the piece to be powerful and inspire others to fight as well and we hit it off with Lung”. 

But working with the E15 mothers meant commitment: “ We had to get involved and not just be bystanders,” says Matt Woodhead. As a result, the company spent two years campaigning and going on protests with the Mums before producing the show.

Watching E15, it is possible to feel the level of commitment and research that has gone into the piece. It is an abrasive and sometimes uncomfortable experience. It works differently from other verbatim shows such as the National Theatre’s My Country, a work in progress, a collection of people’s attitudes to the EU and Brexit, in that the personalities of the real life people on stage is backgrounded. My Country, though a national response to a national crisis, takes pains to imitate the interviewees’ personal tics and personality traits, which, whilst being comical, might detract from the play’s issues by poking fun. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, the charge of distortion, lack of faith in the original material or artistic license could perhaps be laid at My Country’s door. Not so with E15, as the actors are not so much the characters themselves as real protestors: “I try to capture Jasmine’s internal essence”  says actress Isis Davis, who plays Stone onstage.  She spent months on the demonstration lines herself, often taking command of the megaphone.

However, others worry that such verbatim techniques are still embedded within theatrical elitist traditions. “Verbatim is still codified in the way that we are used to seeing and is still part of a handed down middle-class theatrical tradition,”  says Conrad Murray,  who runs BAC’s beat box academy and whose show, DenMarked, explore his experiences of living on a council estate. E15 has not escaped the critics either. In an otherwise glowing review, Lyn Gardner wrote that “Matt Woodhead’s production borrows from agit-prop but there is real sophistication in its delivery”.  Woodhead is not perturbed when I say that this might be a slight criticism. “It is interesting that agit-prop is seen as a dirty word. This piece is definitely agit-prop and I wouldn’t shy away from it. We couldn’t tell the story any other way” he says.

Although E15 does like it’s almost entirely told from the perspective of the protesting mums, with only a few scenes dedicated to interviews procured from politicians, Stone is unapologetic for their minimal stage exposure: “I have very strong opinions on this. Robin Wells (Newham’s Mayor) has a million platforms and he is paid to go on these platforms. I’ve been censored on live TV, so if this is a platform we can use to express ourselves we will use it as much as we can.” Woodhead agrees, “Unfortunately in the world we live in at the minute we hear a lot from people at Westminster everyday on our news and in our news feeds. We don’t hear the marginalised voices, theatre is one of the few forms left where we have the chance to put those voices onstage.”

However, there is a danger that this kind of singular perspective theatre-making could be criticised as prioritising the participants over the audience. The Times’ theatre critic Kate Maltby’s two star review of See Me Nowa performance by sex workers at the Young Vic, described the show as “an extraordinary therapeutic experience for the 11 sex workers who take the stage”- writing as if that lessens the theatrical experience for the audience. Therapeutic was definitely the experience of those who contributed to Lung’s previous show, The 56, a theatre piece about the 1985 Bradford football stadium disaster. “It was forward therapy for them, hearing the words back” says Woodhead “and something that is good for the mums in E15 is being able to sit back and look at what they’ve done.” But he’s clear that this therapeutic quality does not mean that the resulting piece cannot be art. “We never lock the door in theatres” says Woodhead, “and people can always leave”, as if he believes that all shows are massive therapy groups anyway.

But Murray takes issue with actors performing verbatim work onstage, however much it might benefit the original participants: “People’s voices are taken from them.  It is not genuine, it is parasitical” he insists. Undeniably, no one else could perform Murray’s DenMarked, with its strong auteur voice and aural storytelling techniques that draw on Murray’s early cultural experiences. But should, setting aside all practical difficulties, verbatim theatre dispense with actors altogether and use the real people, as journalist Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere at the Young Vic partly seems to? Is this more activist? Aside from this move being a negation of what verbatim actually is, Woodhead says, “Some people don’t always want to tell their stories. Having actors provides distance and there is something cathartic about having your experience played back.”  Davis also disagrees: “If the mums were onstage it would be a seminar. The mums aren’t actors. That’s why we (actors) train and work hard at our craft.”

Still, even if voices are raised criticising verbatim as a way of exploring activism, are shows like this a good move away from how social and political issues are usually represented onstage in British theatre? Playwright Katherine Soper’s Wish List, a play about human rights abuses and a vastly unfair benefits system, has won awards, but audiences still, for the most part, just watch the show and then go home. This is not so with E15. The immediacy that verbatim brings allows the activists to connect with their audiences, and when on tour with the play they ended up staying behind at the end to hand out petitions and advise others in similar situations. The actual experience of the show is also a real life protest. Purists though might worry that the lines between protest and theatre become blurred. In E15 is there a line between the two, should there be? “The two bleeds into one” admits Woodhead, with reference to a march that was held on the streets of Clapham before the show on its opening night. “Protest is theatre” says Stone. “The whole thing is a protest.”

There are clear stylistic ironies that are coming out of both E15 and DenMarked that are worth remarking upon. DenMarked is a solo piece, yet its very form is inseparable from mass culture and it feels as if it has come out of communal protests of the 2011 riots. E15, despite being shaped and directed by Woodhead and writer Helen Monks, has something in common with the syndicalist protest methods of the 1930s and by getting its actors to become protestors, is closer to the artistic choices made in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. Like Paul Mason’s work, E15 purposefully feels unled. The hand of the director cannot be seen, though it is a play with a strong, clear manifesto.

Where My Country relies on the skills of a Poet Laureate to shape the material, E15 has been formed by the embedded journalistic work of Woodhead and Monks. This is not to say that My Country is less authentic because of these artistic choices, but it is to say that Lung are forging a new path with their verbatim techniques, crafting an artistic response to crises around them which feels immediate, new and thoroughly part of the rumblings of revolutions we are now seeing everywhere. E15 may embrace agit-prop and some may see this as a negative, but it also feels networked-in, institution-free and coming from the country’s grassroots. Woodhead says, “I am sucker for activist theatre. Bring it on.” This begs the question, is it enough to make theatre for theatre’s sake anymore? Shouldn’t more plays be activist?

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Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

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